Friday, July 7, 2017

Why a Memoir Is Not an Autobiography


My elderly aunt finished her memoirs.  She mailed me a photocopy.  It was great fun to read--she's always been entertaining storyteller with interesting experiences and a great understanding of people.  She's 97 now and lives in an assisted living community where a fellow resident helped her write up her life stories.  She calls them her "memoirs," and indeed they are--an an act of remembering and a legacy for the family. 

Memoir comes from the Anglo-French word memoirie (from the fifteenth century),meaning "memory" or "note,"  an "account of someone's life."  A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.


But if you're gearing towards publishing outside of family and friends, you need to know how memoir now differs from autobiography.  Modern memoir focuses on a salient part of a life, not the entire trajectory, as an autobiography might.  Rarely does modern memoir start with birth and end with death, or wherever the writer happens to be. 

I like to think of modern memoir as a snapshot of a certain period of time that was pivotal.  It offers a perspective to the writer.  It may have changed the writer's life in a big way.  That's where we begin.  We need to find that pivotal moment, first, then explore it for its universality so readers other than family members will get something out of it.  
 


You have your life behind you, and it may sound hard to pick just one pivotal moment.  So in book structuring, we expand that to five moments.  Maybe the start of a change, the next step, the next, a setback, then a step forward.  I think of This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff which begins with a drive across country with his mother.  That drive triggers a whole series of events that change him completely.  What might be your memoir's triggering event and what does that moment lead to? 

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching my once-a-year workshop on memoir, Writing Your Life, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  One exercise I love, which we use in the workshop, is to look at a ten-year period that seems likely to offer a pivot for the story, then explore it for meaning and change. 

Once the writer lands on the pivot of their memoir, it's easier to reach out from it to find the intersecting storylines--what might have happened years before that led to this moment, what happened years later that came as a result. 

You can also choose where to place the weight of your memoir, once you know this pivotal moment.  Some memoirists write about the time leading to this moment; some write about the aftereffects--the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not.  A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.

The event is the first step.  Then, brainstorming on the lines that radiate out from it to find the story's threads. 

Deciding the pivotal moment, then choosing the direction forward or backward, leads to the third step:  how to weave in the different threads of past, present, and sometimes future.  Most writers feels they have to include all their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events.  Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change?  This is where the storyboard comes in so handy.  Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug. 

I have two favorite examples of this.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the simplest.  H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is more complex, because not only does the writer thread together the current story of training the hawk, Mabel, but also her backstory and that of writer T.H. White who was also a falconer.  Reading these books, we wonder how it's possible.  But dissecting them via a storyboard shows the route.

This week's writing exercise is a freewrite that offers a taste of what we explore in the workshop I'll be teaching on July 22 at the Loft.  Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far.  No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just let it get on the page.  Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked.  Can you create a chain of events from several or many?  Do they have a common result or theme, teaching you some important lesson about life? 

And if you're interesting in joining me on July 22, click here to go to the Loft's website for more information.